After years of gains, civil rights in Sunbelt faces threat of apathy

Juanita Craft recalls that in 1954, the last time NAACP delegates gathered in Dallas for their annual convention, ``we had to put them all up in private homes, because the hotels wouldn't take Negroes at that time.'' The meetings were held in two churches, says Mrs. Craft, a former Dallas city councilor and longtime organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The convention returns to Dallas next week to a warmer welcome at the Dallas Convention Center. But NAACP leaders sense a new threat to the progress of the past few decades: apathy and a feeling that ``the battle has been won'' in the generally prosperous Sunbelt.

``The challenges facing us now are just as important, but they're more subtle,'' says Ted Watkins, president of the NAACP's Dallas district.

``Twenty years ago we were battling the dehumanization of a people,'' adds Richard Dockery, Southwest regional director of NAACP. ``Now it's mostly bread-and-butter issues,'' but the redress of those ``is actually harder to obtain,'' he says.

These leaders say they hope the week-long 76th NAACP convention will provide momentum for revitalizing interest in civil rights issues not only in Dallas, but in the Southwest as a whole.

Right now the Dallas chapter of the NAACP is in a race to overtake Detroit as the nation's largest chapter. Local leaders here say they are confident the excitement of hosting 12,000 civil rights supporters will help put Dallas over the 10,000-member mark -- making it the largest city membership -- before the convention's first gavel Sunday.

Mrs. Craft says one of the most important issues facing the organization today is that ``too many people think we don't need it any more.'' Many young blacks, she says, ``are making salaries I never heard of before, but they don't include the NAACP in that progress.''

Mr. Watkins, himself a former Craft prot'eg'e, agrees apathy has been a problem, primarily because blacks consider economic opportunities in Dallas and Texas in general to be good. But he maintains that while discrimination may not be as blatant as it once was, it remains a threat.

Among the issues to be addressed in convention seminars and beyond, he says, are retrenchment in affirmative action and opportunities for continued economic growth. Locally, he says, the Dallas chapter will be working on rectifying the city's status as the largest metropolitan area without minority representation in Congress.

Mr. Dockery says he has seen steady growth in participation in the five states he has overseen for the last 20 years: Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.

Much of the increased interest -- a jump from fewer than 200 chapters in 1980 to 312 today -- is a result of the population's growing sophistication and its need for support as the region shifts from rural to urban living.

The region's strong service economy also poses special challenges to minorities, Dockery notes. Such low-skill, often low-paying jobs have generally been plentiful for the Southwest's minorities, he says.

``And while we certainly don't resent those who take those jobs, we're saying our people have not shared sufficiently in the region's economic growth,'' he says. ``We want more.''

Blacks' struggle for ``more'' in the Southwest has continued as another ethnic population -- Hispanics -- has eclipsed blacks as the region's largest minority. In 1980 there were 3.7 million Hispanics in Dockery's five-state region, compared with 3.5 million blacks. And the Hispanic population has continued to grow at a faster rate.

Craft says she is concerned that Hispanic illegal aliens are ``taking too many of the jobs formerly acquired by our people.''

But Watkins says the only resentment he has witnessed between the two groups has occurred when political district line-drawing has pitted them against each other in local elections.

Al Kauffman, a staff attorney for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) in San Antonio, says there are claims that a growing Hispanic population has caused resentment among blacks. But he says he has never witnessed it.

Noting that MALDEF is closely modeled after the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Mr. Kauffman says the working relationship between the two organizations continues to be close.

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